Tuesday 21 November 2017

Music: Jeff Buckley - a tarnished legacy

Paternal shadow: Jeff Buckley released only one album during his lifetime, Grace.
Paternal shadow: Jeff Buckley released only one album during his lifetime, Grace.
John Meagher

John Meagher

The latest album from the Jeff Buckley estate, You and I, was released earlier this month to reviews that veered from so-so to mediocre. Essentially a batch of knocked-out covers and a pair of original tracks in a raw state, there's little here to appeal to anyone who loves the only studio album Buckley released in his lifetime, 1994's Grace. In fact, so much of the material on You and I is so ordinary, I doubt I'll ever be moved to listen to it again.

It's been 19 years since Buckley died, at 30, from drowning in the Mississippi River, and there has been a rash of releases ever since. As online music magazine Pitchfork reminds us, the posthumous releases of various hues is outnumbering the singer's solo output by a ratio of 10 to one. There have been compilations, live albums, demos, collected EPs... and none can hold the proverbial candle to Grace.

Buckley's mother, Mary Guibert, is the sole heir to his estate and while I believe she wants to ensure her son's music is relevant for a new generation and remains important to those who fell in love in the early 90s, she is unwittingly doing his legacy a great disservice by releasing such sub-par fare.

Would Buckley really have wanted the world to hear 'Dream of You and I', an early incarnation of 'You And I' that isn't so much a demo as a jam with his band interspersed with chatter? Or what about his take on the Smiths' 'I Know It's Over', a rendition that sounds more like a musician in practice mode than someone intent on making that version the one he releases? There's a Led Zeppelin cover too ('Night Flight') but it does little to excite - and, boy, did Buckley get the pulse racing when he was at the peak of his powers.

The quality with all these cobbled together albums has been off since the very first one, Sketches For My Sweetheart the Drunk, which came out just a year after the singer's death. Irritatingly, some fans who should know better refer to this hotchpotch of middling songs, albeit with flashes of brilliance here and there, as his second album. It's nothing of the sort, although one could understand the clamour to hear any unreleased material at the time. A much more rewarding experience can be heard on the Live at Sin-é double-album, although it, too, is far from perfect.

Recorded in 1993 in the tiny, now-defunct East Village, New York venue that was run by Irish ex-pat Shane Doyle, and released 10 years later, it captured Buckley's extraordinary voice and a magnetism that was apparent whenever he stood in front of an audience. Despite this, the recording quality leaves much to be desired. Still, when one considers that the very first music Buckley ever commercially released was the four-track Live at Sin-é EP in November 1993, one might have imagined that he would have at least given the live album his blessing.

The music industry, more than any other of the arts, has long flogged the scraps that fall from musicians' tables - sometimes with the blessing of those artists, often without. And while there have been some wonderfully rewarding albums - Bob Dylan's 'Bootleg' series is arguably the pinnacle of the lot - all too often the results do little to enhance reputations.

Buckley has suffered in this regard more than most. The son of acclaimed songwriter Tim Buckley, he barely knew his father [who died from a drug overdose at 28 in 1975: Jeff was just eight at the time] and strained throughout his short-lived career to escape from that paternal shadow. He managed it with Grace, an album of astonishingly reworked covers and arresting originals that's still capable of rendering the listener speechless.

His stunning version of Leonard Cohen's 'Hallelujah' is likely familiar to even the most casual of listeners, but his vocals were especially great on his spectral treatment of Benjamin Britten's interpretation of 'Corpus Christi Wine'. And few would dare take on a song made famous by the peerless Nina Simone, but Buckley's take of 'Lilac Wine' is quietly magnificent.

There were signs of his brilliance as a songwriter too, especially on the stirring 'Last Goodbye', which would have sounded florid in lesser hands, and on a pair of co-writes, 'Mojo Pin' and 'Grace', with Gary Lucas. In his career's formative years, Buckley and Lucas played together in the psychedelic rock band Gods and Monsters, and both these songs demonstrate a musical chemistry that could have yielded more great songs.

"Few fly so close to the sun as Jeff Buckley," wrote the NME. "Just for once, the child of a star looks capable of transcending the family legacy. From here on in, the sky's the limit."

Grace was released worldwide on August 23, 1994 - the very night Buckley played a fondly remembered show in Whelan's, Dublin. It was his second time that year to play a venue that has hosted a slew of Irish singer-songwriters, including a handful like Mark Geary and Glen Hansard who knew Buckley personally. Many of the other troubadours who've played there since them were under his spell too.

The album fared dismally in the charts back home, peaking at 149 in the Billboard 200 during his lifetime. It managed a much more respectable 14th place here. And euphoric as many of the reviews from the time were, it was only after his untimely death that Grace truly began to be seen as one of the great albums of its era, regularly included in best-of 1990s lists.

It has now shifted more than two million copies, buoyed by the inevitable 'Legacy' edition released on its 10th anniversary. It's Buckley's great gift to the world and it's a shame that its magic is being tarnished by the very estate that should be protecting it.

As the English music critic Will Hodgkinson put it when reviewing You and I: "Listening to these casual early recordings is rather like reading an imperfect draft of a favourite novel and having your impression of the finished work soiled as a result."

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